Time for a test-ban bargain

By Joshua Pollack | November 30, 2009

On the face of it, quickly bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before the U.S. Senate for ratification seems like an easy choice. In 1996, Washington signed the long-sought treaty, which reinforces the nonproliferation regime by banning all nuclear explosions. No U.S. nuclear testing has taken place since 1992, and there is scant interest in picking up where we left off. Nor is there much left to be gained: Between 1945 and 1992, the United States conducted 1,030 nuclear weapons tests, slightly more than one-half of the world total. Surely, it suffices.

There is also a price for not following through. Even if the CTBT doesn’t enter into force soon–and given the list of states that still must ratify it, including Iran and North Korea, we shouldn’t imagine that it will–the treaty has become a litmus test of good faith in nonproliferation diplomacy. Perhaps because the CTBT treats all countries equally, a perception has taken hold among the non-nuclear weapon states that non-ratification is evidence of U.S. reluctance to take incremental steps toward the disarmament obligations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Swiftly ratifying the CTBT, with the Stockpile Management Program safeguarding the expertise of the nuclear weapons complex, will give Washington the best possible chance to lead the international community toward a stronger nonproliferation regime.”

For this reason, failing to make good on our word has become an irritant that complicates U.S.-led efforts at strengthening the nonproliferation regime. As a Brazilian diplomat observed at a conference earlier this year in Washington, the CTBT has been promised several times already, including at the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences. Similarly, a retired senior official of an allied country told the authors of an influential 2006 study on foreign perspectives on U.S. nuclear policy, “If you want other countries to help work your issues”– meaning nonproliferation–“then you need to help them work their issues”–meaning progress toward disarmament.

Even though the CTBT would do much more for the cause of nonproliferation than it would for arms reductions, the perception tends to be the opposite. Whether Washington is willing to accept a symbolic equality with other countries in the sensitive area of nuclear weapons has obscured the treaty’s limited practical significance.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the CTBT, it does not suffice to measure “pro” against “con” and proceed accordingly. The failure to secure ratification in the Senate in 1999 has become a case study in political polarization, and developments since then have done little to improve the picture. For instance, the thoughtful report by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, which called for a “sustained interagency effort to address senators’ questions and concerns” about the treaty, was ignored.

Opponents were equally unmoved by the report of a National Academies of Science panel in 2002, which gave a very encouraging view of the Stockpile Stewardship Program that assures the safety, reliability, and readiness of U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of testing–and also of the International Monitoring System that detects nuclear tests worldwide. The final report of the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission split over the CTBT and wound up presenting two diametrically opposed sets of views on ratification.

If the Obama administration is to secure at least the 67 Senate votes required for ratification, some horse-trading probably will be required. To this end, the CTBT could be packaged with a commitment to fund research toward a “surety warhead,” meant to serve as a backup should difficulties ever arise in certifying parts of the existing stockpile in the absence of testing. In particular, a deal might involve formally, or informally, tying ratification to the establishment of the Stockpile Management Program proposed in the defense authorization bill earlier this year by the House Armed Services Committee. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent linkage of the Stockpile Management Program proposal with CTBT ratification suggests that this idea may already have been taken on board.

The Senate should view such an understanding as a win-win outcome. On one hand, CTBT ratification, by signaling good faith, will help to avoid a major setback as the United States leads the way toward a strengthened nonproliferation regime. On the other hand, investment in a “surety warhead” will contribute to sustaining the nuclear weapons enterprise in the coming years. This linkage goes beyond mere political expediency. The same recent JASON report that found “no evidence” of added risk to the nuclear stockpile from minor changes in the course of routine life-extension work also observed that the success of any stockpile maintenance strategy–be it incremental life-extension, reuse of existing components, or outright warhead replacement–depends on the expertise resident in the nuclear weapons complex. It concluded that “lack of program stability, perceived lack of mission importance, and degradation of the work environment” could jeopardize the sustainment of that expertise. By supporting warhead-related research aimed at creating an “option of last resort” to backstop the current life-extension program, a Stockpile Management Program could assuage these concerns.

As proposed, the Stockpile Management Program steers carefully between the legitimate goal of sustaining the nuclear weapons complex and the need to avoid the development of warheads with improved military performance in categories such as hard-target defeat capability. Creating more accurate or more destructive warheads–as opposed to safe, secure, and reliable backup warheads–would undercut the administration’s commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. As others have noted, this sort of “mission creep” proved to be the undoing of the reliable replacement warhead proposed by the Bush administration.

The end of the nuclear arms race that took place during the Cold War makes it pointless–and politically nigh impossible–to pursue marginal refinements of U.S. nuclear military capabilities. Today’s greatest challenge is holding back a wave of nuclear proliferation. Swiftly ratifying the CTBT, with the Stockpile Management Program safeguarding the expertise of the nuclear weapons complex, will give the United States the best possible chance to lead the international community toward a stronger nonproliferation regime.

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